When folk royalty such as Richard Thompson venture into the adjoining pub before this sold out show, it tends to ramp up the pressure somewhat. It’s a challenge that his daughter, the prodigiously talented Kami Thompson and her husband, James Walbourne, seem more than ready to meet, however, as they perform an excellent show, showcasing no fewer than eight of the ten songs from their forthcoming release, ‘Cancel the Sun’.
On their debut album ‘Fair Warning’, which generated rave reviews and accolades, and its follow up, ‘Other People’, The Rails have emerged as an interesting hybrid between the more folky sensibilities of Kami Thompson and the rockier predisposition of James Walbourne, the latter renowned for his willingness to indulge in a guitar shredding solo when the opportunity arises, although with The Rails it’s more often the case that his guitar work is understated – and always in the service of the song.
They’re confident enough this evening to start with three songs from the new album on which they’re attempting their first co-writes. The handclaps and razor like guitar riff of ‘The Inheritance’, (“I’ve made an appointment with a heartache”) was followed by probably the most immediately accessible song on the new album, ‘Call Me When It All Goes Wrong’. Gloriously melodic, albeit with a sharp edge, in Kami’s singing it’s almost impossible not to think of the lineage of her mother, Linda, with her beautifully clear vocal tone. But this beauty is also married to a darkness in the follow up song whose darkly morbid lyrics suggest that one way of addressing impending ecological catastrophe is to: “Save the planet, kill yourself.”
The set list is cleverly put together. For every folk song such as ‘William Taylor’, a traditional piece inspired by a visit the duo took to Cecil Sharpe house, there’s an equivalent, more uptempo rock song such as ‘Late Surrender’ on which it’s easy to see why their music is self-described as “folk rock on steroids” – this particular number even further amped up in a live setting.
One clever conceit of the Rails is the way the couple trade vocals on successive songs. For the richly melodic and contemporary folk number, ‘Mossy Well’ – this time led by Walbourne – it’s the way that Kami’s voice manages to effortlessly glide above that of her partner that’s capable of eliciting an emotional response. The title track of their debut album, ‘Fair Warning’ evokes comparison to ‘Shoot Out the Lights’ era Richard and Linda Thompson while ‘The Cally’ draws comparisons of a different nature. This song is inspired by Walbourne’s grandfather’s stories of growing up on the Caledonian Road and the transformation in the modern era the area has since experienced. It’s a song which in structure and sound immediately puts you in mind of The Pogues’ ‘The Old Main Drag’. The influence is perhaps no surprise when you realise that Walbourne’s go to desert island album is ‘Rum, Sodomy and the Lash’. The dissatisfaction he feels at what supposedly constitutes progress in London is shared on ‘Other People’ with its pretty melody something of a rallying call against the selfishness and lack of social manners of the modern era.
To end, they revisit the theme of ecological destruction (“Hello Armageddon”) on ‘Cancel the Sun’, its sweetly delivered opening verse eventually giving way to a blistering guitar solo. They returned for a single encore of ‘On the Mighty Ocean Alcohol’, a mighty tribute on Walbourne’s part to his former compadre, Bap Kennedy, which would have resonated with any audience members fortunate enough to have caught Bap and James’s regular Sunday sessions at the Boogaloo in north London back in the early Noughties.
With strong vocal harmonies and impassioned, cleverly thought out songs and lyrics, this trial run out of new material feels like a further step forward for the Rails. The combination of melody and grittiness make for a unique and ultimately beautiful fusion – it’s the grit in the oyster that makes the pearl after all. Be sure to catch them on tour when they return for dates in October.
With thanks to Sean Hannam for use of his photos.